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Review: Tom Cruise Can’t Lift ‘Oblivion’ Into Orbit

Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko in Joseph Kosinski's 'Oblivion' (Universal Pictures)
Tom Cruise and Olga Kurylenko in Joseph Kosinski’s ‘Oblivion’ (Universal Pictures)

Joseph Kosinski and an army of talented technicians have buffed and polished Oblivion to a high-gloss sheen. The film looks and sounds spectacular in true, giant-sized IMAX, as at the Cinemark 17 IMAX Theatre, and is briskly paced so as to allow little time for dawdling. And the lead performance by Tom Cruise bolsters the visuals with gut-level sincerity.

Indeed, Oblivion takes off with much sound and fury, establishing a future in which the Earth repelled an alien invasion, thus “winning” the war, but losing because the planet was irredeemably damaged. Most of surviving mankind has been successfully transplanted over the past 50 years to a distant moon, where water is badly needed. Thus, special machines have been installed, sucking up the oceans for transfer to mankind’s new home. Automated and fully weaponized drones guard the machines from Scavengers, as the remants of the alien invasion force are known. Sometimes the drones need repairs and maintenance, requiring a skeleton crew of drone repairmen to do mop-up duty on Earth.

Jack (Tom Cruise) is one of the repairmen, teamed with Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They are stationed at a mile-high sky tower; Jack heads off every day to make his rounds in a bubble ship — a cross between a helicopter and a jet fighter — while Victoria remains behind at the sky tower, manning a bank of computers and displays to keep him apprised of any potential dangers, and maintain communication with Sally (Melissa Leo), their supervisor at the space station that overseas the final operations before Earth is permanently abandoned.

With only two weeks left on their assignment, Jack and Victoria are eager to finish up their service and join the rest of mankind, but Jack is plagued by dreams of a distant Earth, before the alien invasion, recurring dreams in which a lovely young woman plays a starring role. One day a spacecraft crashes to Earth, bringing the drones to destroy it, but Jack arrives just in time to realize that humans were in the spacecraft and to rescue one survivor, who looks very much like the lovely young woman in his dreams.

Soon enough, the young woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), reveals her true identity to Jack, a shock to his system that is compounded by a meeting with a mysterious “Scavenger” known as Beech (Morgan Freeman). Jack must wrestle with issues of love, romance, identity, and the fate of mankind, and quickly! Because time is running out.

Taking place in a desolate, post-apocalyptic Earth where, nonetheless, many iconic buildings appear, Oblivion presents a sun-bleached future, one that is perhaps explained by the aliens’ destruction of the Moon, but which doesn’t begin to comment on the design of the super-cool weapons, ships, and sky towers. Powered by a rumbling musical score by M83, Oblivion races through sequences with a facile agility, anchored by Cruise’s rock-solid foundation.

While the set-up is sufficiently engaging, perplexing questions start to accumulate quickly as to character motivations, delineations, and narrative destinations. The questions venture too far into spoiler territory for discussion in a review of this sort, but they are pushed aside and then never resolved. This means that the film as a whole is disappointing because Kosinski and multiple screenwriters (of whom only Karl Gajdusek and Michael DeBruyn receive credit for the screenplay, with Kosinski credited for original story) do not bring anything particularly new or startling to the familiar ingredients that they have borrowed from many other science-fiction books and movies.

To mention one aspect that is not a spoiler, Jack goes “off communications” to visit a hidden valley that is a verdant paradise, where he has plenty of water — a commodity we’re led to believe is in short supply on the Earth because it’s being siphoned off to replenish makind on that distant moon — and has built a cabin, filled with mementos that he has salvaged from the ruins of the planet. No explanation is given as to how he has created this water-filled paradise, nor are we informed how he manages to keep it from being detected by the all-knowing drone ships and their networked information from the orbiting space station. It exists as a rather obvious plot device, outside of common sense and reason.

Beyond Cruise, the other members of the cast, which includes Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Zoe Bell, are given only a small range in which to play, which they handle ably. Claudio Miranda, who just won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, brings a similar bright look to the film, which has a relatively small amount of green-screen work. Kosinski and Miranda previously made Tron: Legacy together, which was a similar visual treat.

In only his outing as a feature film director, Joseph Kosinski proves that is more than capable as a world-builder. But he has yet to demonstrate a commensurate vision as far as his characters or stories are concerned. Oblivion is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go as far as it thinks it does.

Oblivion opens April 19, wide across the Metroplex. The only giant-sized, true IMAX location where it is playing is at the Cinemark 17 in Dallas.